Jet-setting students can travel cheap in 2013

For students who enjoy traveling, there’s a new way to fly to some favorite beach destinations and major cities in the South without breaking the bank.

Southern Airways Express has stepped into the airline transportation market in the Memphis area, catering to destinations within a 500-mile radius of city. Travelers can now buy roundtrip flights from Memphis to New Orleans, La.; Destin, Fla.; Gulf Shores, Ala.; Gulfport, Miss.; Oxford, Miss.; and Panama City, Fla.

It all began with CEO Stan Little’s purchase of a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle, a six-seat personal airplane, according to chief operating officer Keith Sisson.

“The moment he got it, everyone wanted to rent the plane to go to Destin,” Sisson said. “Well, what if they didn’t have to rent the entire plane? What if they could rent a seat?”

That one airplane has expanded into a fleet of eight-seater Cessna 208 Caravans and ten-seater 208B Grand Caravans.

For $129, customers can typically buy a ticket for a one-way trip. Deals are sometimes given on Facebook and Twitter for last-minute getaways, sometimes for as low as $9 for one-way.

The airline had its inaugural flight in June this year, the month Delta announced its de-hubbing of the Memphis International Airport.

While Delta does some things well, Sisson said, legacy carriers—that is, major airlines—are no longer interested in routes less than 500 miles.

“We’re the only (airline) in the country operating on this model,” Sisson said. “Memphis to Birmingham will never happen again on a legacy carrier. There’s a need to take people from major population centers in the region.”

Because the airline operates smaller aircrafts, Southern Airways customers can bypass many of the hassles that the Transportation Security Administration regulates for major airlines. Travelers can park for free at the smaller airports and walk up to the plane, where the captain will greet customers and take their bags for no fee.

“We aren’t going to tell you to throw away your shampoo bottles,” Sisson said. “That’s not the system we have in place.”

Legacy carriers have been making nationwide cuts on features and adding fees, but Southern Airways has been adding amenities to their flights. The airline just included an iPad for every seat, complementary to use during the flight, along with use of Bose headphones.

“With a major airline, you’re sitting right next to somebody,” Sisson said. “Sometimes you have a window, sometimes you have an aisle, but you’ll be sitting very close to somebody. Our seats are spread out. You have more space. Every seat is a window seat and an aisle seat. It works out really well for people who are larger, taller or claustrophobic.”

Though some may enjoy those amenities, flyers who enjoy the convenience and efficiency of major airports may have to sacrifice some for the price of a Southern Airway ticket. The airline operates out of smaller airports, like the General DeWitt Spain Airport located in downtown Memphis on 2nd Street, which can put travelers on outskirts of town depending on the location.

Despite just opening this summer, Southern Airways is planning its expansion to large southern markets.

As the airline continues to expand to different cities, Southern Airways plans to keep pricing the same, between $129 and $249 for one-way flights. Limits may be made in the future in the amount of lower-price tickets, but tickets will never cost more than $249.

“We may raise the basement, but we won’t raise the roof,” Sisson said.

In early August, Southern Airways Express announced that during the fall, it will be providing flights from Memphis to Birmingham, Ala. There will also be flights to Atlanta, Ga. and Knoxville, Tenn.

Anyone looking for a budget option to fly into Atlanta would benefit from the Southern Airways flight, Sisson said, which takes travelers right into DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

For the students who love the beach, there will be daily flights to Gulf Shores, Ala., as well as a weekend getaway service to Gulfport, Miss. after Labor Day. There may even be student discounts for those two-flight routes in the future, according to Sisson.

David Cohen, a junior computer science major, visits New Orleans once a year but drives the six-hour trip.

“The drive isn’t bad, but a train is $100 roundtrip,” Cohen said. “($129) is closer to a price I’d be willing to pay if I wanted to fly.”

Cohen said Southern Airways could fill an untapped market in Memphis, attracting students who like to take beach trips because of the competitive pricing.

“It will absolutely be beneficial (to them),” he said.

Students can find more information and buy tickets by visiting Southern Airways at http://iflysouthern.com.

This article was previously published in August 2013.

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